New Brighton, St. Anthony and sheriff’s office are closing in on police body camera use

Police-worn body camera research and debate has intensified following recent high profle police shootings, such as the killing of Michael Brown in St. Louis in 2014. 

Such shootings also happen locally. A St. Anthony police officer shot and killed Philando Castile in Falcon Heights in 2016 and Darren Jahnke was shot and killed by Ramsey County Sheriff’s deputies in Vadnais Heights in 2017.

But according to sheriff’s office’s Public Information Officer Randy Gustafson, body cameras were on the county’s radar before the most recent debates, since at least 2011.

Law enforcement agencies have had facility cameras and squad car dashboard cameras for decades. A camera strapped to the body is the natural next step, said New Brighton Public Safety Director Tony Paetznick. “Its another layer we want to add.”

Local law enforcement agencies, nudged along by recent incidents, are heading toward applying that layer. New Brighton drafted a police body-worn camera policy in October. The St. Anthony City Council unanimously approved a joint agreement with Roseville for body camera funding, as well as a policy and implementation, on Nov. 28.

By this time next year, Gustafson said Ramsey County deputies will be wearing body cameras. He pointed out there is still a lot of policy and procedure work to be done before deputies actually put a camera on and hit record, but by sometime in 2018, he said the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office “should have it all resolved.”

Ramsey County deputies provide law enforcement services for Arden Hills, Gem Lake, Little Canada, North Oaks, Shoreview, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Township. Come the new year, Gem Lake will be provided with police service by White Bear Lake, and Falcon Heights will join the group policed by county deputies.

Vadnais Heights Mayor Bob Fletcher said he believes, based on conversations he’s had with legislators, that sometime in the next two to five years, the Minnesota Legislature will pass a statute requiring all state law enforcement departments to have body cameras. 

Fletcher said any hurdles to police worn body cameras will be overcome, and that police worn-body camera use isn’t a question of if, but when.

 

Trusting police

As mayor of Vadnais Heights, Fletcher, who is also a former Ramsey County Sheriff, said he is very satisfied with the police service provided by deputies. 

He added that, because of the man who was shot and killed by deputies in Vadnais Heights, and similar shootings throughout the country, some people have lost trust in police.  

The Vadnais Heights shooting happened during a confrontation between 47-year-old Jahnke and deputies in the confined space of an RV, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which also said that Jahnke reached for a deputy’s weapon during the confrontation. Deputies shot and killed Jahnke on April 16. No deputies were hurt during the shooting. They were not wearing body cameras.

Jahnke’s mother, Ann Jahnke of Ellsworth, Wisconsin, in a letter to the Pioneer Press, wrote that she will ultimately accept if  the still ongoing investigative efforts conclusively find her son was shot and killed in self defense. She also writes that she does not believe the story of the altercation she read in the paper, as presented by law enforcement, to be “the whole truth.”

“If we lose that trust, police will never recover,” said Fletcher, saying body cameras will strengthen public trust in police. 

Gustafson said patrol officers back the use of cameras so they can prove they’re doing good work, and Paetznick said some think there are other benefits to the cameras, though that has yet to be borne out by research.

“Some people are thinking across the nation that cameras somehow improve community relations or decrease misconduct or use of force,” said Paetznick. Studies geared toward specifically finding out if body-worn cameras curb misconduct or improve relations, which is a relatively new field of study, Paetznick said, show that cameras don’t really have an impact on those things. 

He said body camera policy is about utilizing an evidence collection tool. “It’s about looking at evidence,” Paetznick said, adding he understands the best way for law enforcement to keep a great relationship with the community is through “openness and transparency,” and that body cameras can help with that. 

 

Question of costs

Gustafson said the county is currently looking over various equipment and data storage policies. “We’re in the study stages of that,” he said, explaining it involves looking at equipment vendors, data practices rulemaking and understanding privacy rights of law enforcement officers.

It also means just understanding video, and understanding its appropriate influence on investigations. “It’s not infallible technology,” Gustafson said. 

With the purchase of camera equipment and added staff time to process camera footage, cost is the biggest hurdle. Still, Gustafson said the obstacle of money, or any any other, will not stop body cameras from being used.

Fletcher said he’s not sure the cost of implementing body cameras is justifiable, on its own.

“But,” he said, “at times there are matters where the public interest outweighs the cost.”


– Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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